The Once and Future Groupware King May be 1997's Killer App
By Craig W. Borysowich, Senior Network/Workgroup Technologies Consultant
With the latest release of Domino 4.5 and its abundance of new capabilities, it should be clear that IBM/Lotus are committed to take the Internet and its major players (read: Netscape and Microsoft) head on. Moreover, given the comprehensive groupware and workflow automation features already mature in Lotus Notes, seamless integration of Notes with the Internet is an obvious and logical next step.
This places the Domino/Notes product head and shoulders above competing server, e-mail, or workgroup solutions available today. Equivalent product maturity is currently only in announced targets to be
reached within the next two to three years for both Netscape and Microsoft's product lines, based on strategies which continue to change on a weekly basis.
Given that the future of Internet groupware lies in the combination of seamless integration with ease of use, Notes/Domino provides that future today in one box, with advanced features that may surprise you. A key advantage of Notes/Domino is that all of the basic tools are included within the basic server package. You get the server, SMTP gateway, client software, cc:Mail gateway, and GroupWare/workflow application development capabilities in one cost-effective, centrally-administered bundle.
Building Net Solutions
One of the more daunting costs of moving to the web, for business, is the requirement for people with specialized, expensive skills. Notes mitigates this problem by providing an environment that allows users with a basic knowledge of the Notes client and minimal word processing skills to populate the content of a web site.
Previously, with InterNotes (an early Lotus web gateway), you needed a separate web server, such as Netscape Server or Microsoft IIS, for Notes to push out HTML pages and then carry that information to the web for you. In V4.5 of Notes/Domino, that is no longer the case. Netscape, Notes clients, Internet Explorer, Mosaic, and any other standard web browser can go directly against the Domino Server without intermediary software. Domino's built-in support for secure protocols, along with robust security features,
enables all these different clients to become a very powerful and secure solution to get information in the hands of the people who should have it.
The Internet and Security
Business users remain nervous, and rightly so, about the security of information sent over highly-connected public networks. Secure protocols, firewalls, encryption, and solid access limitations are some of the expanding methods of keeping sensitive information safe on the Internet.
Look at security management for a moment. One of the biggest problems with standard web software is that there is a lot of administration with all those different modules. With e-mail, you have to configure every user ID and access rights with passwords etc. Gopher servers need to be set up with another set of access configurations to allow people at the information they are authorised to get. Usenet News servers have another admin process for maintaining who can access the content and who is barred. FTP servers also contain another set of access privileges and relate them to users against the directory structures. Last but not least is probably trying to work with traditional Netscape or IIS servers to allow and disallow user access to different areas of a web site based on who they are or where they are originating. This can be a nightmare task to co-ordinate, and track. Many an ISP has fallen trying to keep all of these elements in sync, cost effectively, with some kind of auditable process that can detect errors, changes that have been missed, or see that something has been altered from outside the process (i.e. hackers or employees taking advantage of systems).
The Future Today in Domino
When you enter the Domino environment using a web client, for example, you communicate directly with the Domino server on the Internet. All Notes based information is translated into HTML on the fly as you request it from the server. When you get into accessing private information bases, you are challenged once for a user name and password which points to a person document in the Name and Address book which holds all of the verification information. Once the users are logged in, their movements are tracked and they will only be able to access information in Notes databases to which they have rights based on Notes' built-in Access Control Lists (ACLs).
Authenticated users will be able to check their mail using either the web interface to cruise the mail database, or surf through bases of graphic and text information that they are authorized to see, which lets Domino replace the need for Gopher servers. Combine files with your documents, and Notes/Domino now has the ability to replace the FTP server also. This is all accomplished through a single security profile and the easy maintenance of database ACLs.
We Want to be Interactive
What about getting information back from the web? Simple. Lotus Notes has been a forms-based database system since v1.0, and that capability has now been translated to the web. You can present all Notes Forms and SubForms to the web clients as an HTML form, which they fill in and post to the database, except now the information is instantaneously available. Online discussions and team meetings become more dynamic. We no longer need to pull the information back into the Notes Server via InterNotes to drop it into the proper database and then pass the updated database back out to the web server. Users interacting directly with the Domino server can see instantaneous results as they post new information and replies. Users can even request to edit their previously posted documents to make changes.
The same form processes above can be used to have new users create their own person document in the Name & Address Book (N&AB). You can provide automatic access to select databases or have a waiting period for access approval if necessary. This becomes a very powerful tool for information gathering and lead database building. Having an area of registered discussion groups, or support databases allows you to generate a list of people that are interested enough in your product or service to
register for access to specialised information. Or even set up a form to simply populate an N&AB Group document to create e-mail lists for press release mailings or product updates via Internet mass mailings.
Another key area is the request process of information or services. A user could access an insurance web-site and fill in a Household insurance form, after providing the info and selecting the type of coverage she would like, the information would then get passed from the web to an underwriter. The underwriter would then add on the SubForm containing the risk, eligibility and cost assessment of the policy. This full form would then be passed to a policy manager for approval. The electronic signature of the manager triggers a policy creation process and notifies the regional agent of a new policy being created in his area, plus notifies the new policy holder that he has been approved. The entered information is mailed into
the Mainframe policy system and all of the relevant documents are sent out to the policyholder. On completion of creating the policy and calculating the lifetime of the policy on the mainframe, a message is driven back to Notes which notifies all parties, including the customer, that the house insurance policy is now activated.
Of course, this process involves an impressive amount of automation of what was once a laborious, time-intensive process. Its central aim is to increase the insurer's profile with the customer by: a) keeping the policyholders informed about where the approval process is currently sitting, and b) increasing the turnaround of policy creation. The potential boost to customer service and satisfaction would be the envy of a lot of insurers out there.
The process described in the previous paragraph details a complex set of applications and processes, which I have only touched at a very high level. However, all of this process can translate out to the web as well. Even the Underwriter and the policy manager can be internet connected. The Domino server handles all of the workflow. If someone uses a LotusScript module that performs some on-screen tasks, the script can now be translated to a Java app on the fly and perform the same function on the screen of the web Browser as it would have been seen on a Notes client. This becomes a big cost saving for people that have invested in Notes already. All of the knowledge that has grown within Notes gets passed out to the web in standard protocols and languages without any high investment of re-training the entire team.
All of the desktops, databases, views, documents and scripts you create can be easily passed to the web and all of your users can create and add to the web content as easily as using a simple e-mail program and they can even attach files. Domino makes all of this happen in one box with live interactivity and movement of information online.
Nothin' but News and Sites
Next to free web access, companies are also concerned about employees having free Usenet newsgroup access. The best part of Notes/Domino v4.5 is that you can control both. If during business hours, you know that your users are generally in the office, you make sure that you are not
configuring your Internet connection as if your company was an ISP. A Notes Web database can be configured to hold all of the web sites and pages that are required for daily business and Domino updates them regularly within the database to make sure the latest info is at your user's fingertips.
A similar set-up can be made for Newsgroups as well. On web there is a tonne of information which users can spend hours searching for on company time, or they may just spend hours rifling through all the occurrences of "XXX" they can get out of AltaVista. The difference with Newsgroups is that all of the categories are kept in a nice neat list and your users can spend less time looking for the occurrences of "XXX" and just waste hours reading "XXX". To some this scenario is just humorous and to others it might be offensive, but there are many companies that I have shown have users surfing web sites and newsgroups on company time through their firewall logs that are not business related. Mind you, I've always considered Dilbert to be business oriented. A newsgroup database can be configured in Notes to show only the newsgroups employees need to access for business and news purposes. This lets companies close their Firewalls to the point of only needing to allow the Domino servers to communicate through it to gather information and push information out on the Net.
When users connect to an ISP and access the company web site, it will usually be outside of regular business hours. This means they can surf any web site or peruse any news group they like while they are paying for the access themselves and not consuming corporate bandwidth with the latest shareware games and new levels for Quake.
What Time Is It?
The one feature that is perhaps long overdue in Lotus Notes is calendar and scheduling. Now users can easily schedule meetings with others, reserve meeting rooms, manage tasks, and make sure they get out of the office before the boss returns by checking his schedule. I feel for all of you that had to travel the frustrating road of integrating Lotus Organizer or Microsoft Schedule+ or any other scheduling package with Notes. I've been there many times, and it was usually not easy, not up-to-date or not working!
Now all of your meetings and appointments are trapped in Notes and accurate. This scheduled information is now also available to you on the web through Domino. Dial into the corporate network or any ISP, and you have instant access to your up-to-the-minute schedule and you can confirm which boring document review meetings your boss has dropped on you at 7:30 the next morning.
Has the Mail Arrived Yet?
Mail has always been one of the cornerstones of Lotus Notes. In v4.5, the Message Transport Agents to move mail between Notes and the Internet, or Notes and cc:Mail, are now a part of the Domino Server kit. These MTAs also allow for the passing of mail between the MTAs giving cc:Mail users access to the internet and vice versa through the Domino server. The same feature is also available in the X.400 MTA for Notes. With the integration of calendar and scheduling to the mail file and more advanced agents to
handle employee status, Notes e-mail becomes a powerful team project management tool allowing action items and tasks to be scheduled and monitored between all of the individuals on the team. This can help a
project team confirm that the ball doesn't get dropped just because Fred caught the 24-hour flu for three days.
The days of requiring a Notes client to get mail is also over. I mentioned mail access through the web once before, but users can also configure any POP3 compliant e-mail software (i.e. Eudora, Netscape Mail, Pegasus, etc.) to log directly into the Domino server and retrieve their mail from the server to their local workstation.
A big move in server stability that has really taken shape in Notes v4.5 is the ability to Cluster servers. A cluster of two to four servers appears to the users on the network or Internet as a single server. The
Domino servers share user loads, and task loads on either a central disk subsystem or a high-speed mirrored disk array. If you want to be sure that a Domino server stays on-line, this feature can make sure that a small glitch on one of the machines in the cluster doesn't make your entire web presence disappear which can potentially cost some companies more money than I care to mention.
The Cost of Reality
The big push now, is to integrate information by utilising an Intranet for all of your internal information and activities. Allow public access to your products, services and company news information on your Internet web site and then build an Extranet, which will bring your customers & suppliers in to quickly gather information on their interaction with your company (like invoices, purchase orders, inventory etc.). Now you want to allow your employees and your customers access to all of their information through the Internet, which can make your Intranet and Extranet very public - Domino can secure that information as described earlier.
All of this integration certainly comes at a price no matter how you attempt to do it. However, independent cost reports show that with an NT or Netware server along with Domino at it's current pricing, will come out much cheaper in both up-front software costs, and overall management costs
than the same functionality using a Netscape or Miscrosoft IIS server. That would include all of the capabilities described above, except for some of the advanced workgroup/workflow functions, which are simply not available in Microsoft Exchange or Netscape Communicator.
Allowing all users to contribute online and build the web content in an engine like Notes/Domino empowers your users, and reduces the cost of problems with translating documents in word processors to HTML and then having them not look quite right. That always results in paying HTML wizards to tweak and assemble your site for hours on end. Notes/Domino provides an automatic and consistent web site look and feel, which you can customise in many ways through the use of Navigators and dozens of
The Last Word
In closing, you should now be able to feel the power and easy integration of Notes/Domino as a total Internet/Intranet/Extranet solution. That is why Notes/Domino gets my proclamation for Killer App of '97.
Microsoft and Netscape are playing catch-up to Lotus' features in many of the areas discussed and are even further away on the integration of all their tools.
Look for some big changes to come down the pipe for Notes/Domino in the future. A lot of the Notes client to Notes server security came from its key based certification and encryption process. Look for this highly secure methodology to evolve and be available in the non-notes client interaction through integration with products like VeriSign or support for PGP. We should see more movement toward X.500 standards, more security options and features, more open protocol support, extended HTML support and
VRML support, and of course tighter internet integration.
Microsoft and Netscape will catch-up eventually, but during that time, IBM/Lotus will be moving ahead too.